On a recent vacation trip to Montreal I encountered an exhibition in a gallery at the Notre Dame Cathedral with the intriguing title “Life Before Death.” It reminded me of a tribute a friend made to his father. “My father was a courageous man. Unlike the cowards who die a thousand deaths, he lived his life fully each day, and at the end of his life, he died.” Though some might consider this a strange subject to pursue while on vacation, I couldn’t resist seeing how art and story might offer an enhanced understanding of death.
German photographer Walter Schels & journalist Beate Lakotta admit to beginning the project to alleviate their own fear and discomfort with the subject, and visiting their work I’m guessing they have accomplished that for many others as well. Their twenty-four subjects were living in a hospice, and the artists got their permission to photograph them during the initial interview and then again shortly after they died. The two gigantic photographs of each person were displayed side by side along with their stories.
Included in the mix were some who had been vital and alive only a few months before, then stricken suddenly with something like an inoperable brain tumor. A six year-old boy’s two pictures, placed next to the pictures of his mother stood out for me. Both were suffering with the same terminal disease. The mother told of her prayer to stay alive long enough for her son to go before her. That prayer was answered, but not the next one, to stay around long enough to be there to raise the boys’ twin. She died less than a month after her afflicted son.
Some people seemed to thrive in the environment of the hospice facility. One man lived a good year longer than anyone had expected, dying shortly after he had been notified that he would have to leave the facility. Some people expressed regret that their life was ending since they felt it was just beginning. Having worked all their lives, they were looking forward to enjoying retirement or a new relationship. Several men who had lived for their work, without attachments to family and friends, expressed the feeling that they had not lived.
One death that felt especially blessed to me was of a man whose wife spent every day with him. She described having a kind of intimacy that hadn’t been available to them in other circumstances in their lives. A woman in her 60s told a moving story of forgiveness and reconciliation. She had gone through a contemptuous divorce many years prior and hadn’t spoken to her former husband for 17 years. Entering the hospice, she decided to call and ask him to come and be with her at her deathbed. He did so and it seemed to allow her to die peacefully. All the stories provided lessons, but some demonstrate there is much life in the process of dying.